The Amazing Spider-Man (2012)

Spider-Man: A new beginning or short-attention span snack?

Directed by Marc Webb

Braving the possible mandatory cavity searches in movie theaters since the "Dark Knight Rises" Colorado debacle, I decided to finally check out "The Amazing Spider-Man" and answer some of the questions surrounding it ever since news came that a reboot of everyone’s favorite wall-crawler was going to begin production. Was it a cynical ploy by Sony not to give Sam Raimi, Tobey Maguire and Kirsten Dunst raises for another sequel and simply start from scratch, or was this indeed the version die-hard Spider-Man fans always craved? Sure, Spider-Man 3 was an overstuffed misfire that fell into pure kitsch, but to start from scratch only five years later was setting a new precedent in audience ADD.

Unfortunately, despite the improvements that five years of CGI advances would inevitably bring to his acrobatics, this version of Spider-Man indeed strains beneath Sony’s corporate desperation to do something with the property or lose it to another studio, scraping the barrel for whatever characters and situations the previous franchise hadn’t completely used up (“Let’s see, Raimi already had the Green Goblin, Dr. Octopus, Sandman, Venom… who else is left? Um… THE LIZARD! And Gwen Stacey wasn’t really explored in the last one: there’s the girlfriend! Maguire’s Parker was in college, so let’s put him back in high school,” etc.). Though not nearly as bad, it falls into the same trap as Bryan Singer’s "Superman Returns," a mix-and-match take on a hero’s mythology that never quite knows whether it’s supposed to be a new chapter in the saga or have its own identity.

As a skateboard-carrying Peter Parker, Andrew Garfield comes off as more Abercrombie model-in-waiting than the social outcast the movie wants you to believe, though he lays on the nerdish stammers and emotes quite effectively. The film contorts more than Spidey in mid-leap to find new ways to make his origin story fresh – this time Peter accidentally knocks out the riders on a bizarrely derelicts-only subway car, and has Kafkaesque deliriums in his room. But the movie makes the fatal move of tilting the hero from the comic’s familiar underdog quipster into an arrogant jerk, at one point browbeating a hapless car thief and the cops who arrive on the scene. After that, you never quite buy Peter as a moist-eyed, trembly-lipped bearer of moral responsibility (Garfield’s interviews around the time of the film’s release were full of spite at playing a superhero in lieu of serious roles, and some of this may have leaked into his characterization).

Luckily, he’s backed up by sympathetic players. Martin Sheen, toddling around barefoot in rolled-up pants on his way to fix the dryer, is warm and touching as the ill-fated Uncle Ben; usually manic Welsh goofball Rhys Ifans shows dignified restraint as scientist-turned-Lizard Curtis Connors, poignantly dreaming of replacing his missing arm one minute, delivering ‘Phantom of the Sewers’ monologues on the obsolescence of humanity the next; Denis Leary offers some welcome crankiness as Gwen Stacy’s police captain father; and Emma Stone is game as Gwen, communicating the tender intimacy of her and Garfield’s real-life romance (too bad the film couldn’t just have them in college instead of the very late twenties-looking Stone resembling a female member of the "21 Jump Street" squad).

Given a third-tier villain is all they have to work with, writers James Vanderbilt, Alvin Sargent and Steve Kloves at least do a nice job of dovetailing the Lizard’s origin with Peter’s (who visits Connors’s lab searching for a connection to his missing parents, a Bourne-like subplot forgotten once the web-swinging kicks in), and there’s an admirable attempt to modernize the explanation of how a radioactive spider would transform a teen into something more; discussions of cross-breeding genetics and decay-blocking algorithms are welcome summer brain candy while school’s out (the lab’s aquarium-blue floating DNA graphics make one of the film’s best visual motifs). But all the literal-mindedness about how exactly he becomes Spider-Man – Peter studying speed-skating suits online and web-cartridge technology – makes you miss the goofy, suspended disbelief simplicity of Tobey just sketching up a costume while daydreaming of girls and success and swinging into action. And the effort to present what Spider-Man would actually look like in the real world often makes him genuinely look like some nutcase in a speed-skater suit with a bug mask, or a reminder of the embarrassingly hokey live-action show from the 70s.

Despite many fight scenes lost in a haze of “Let’s also make Spider-Man a Jet Li badass”, spasms of interest abound: him creating and sitting on a vast web as he awaits a semi-showdown with the Lizard (here particularly Hulked-out, the producers probably figuring one scientist turned green-skinned monster is as good as another); their battle briefly scored to classical music as it crashes through a school library, while an oldster (Stan ‘Last living creator of the original Marvel characters and therefore hogging all the credit’ Lee) listens obliviously on headphones in the foreground. It’s just there are only so many times in one’s life one can feel joy with Peter as he yells a triumphant “whoo” at discovering his powers, and a final swooping battle above Manhattan, which probably looks great in 3-D (I don’t know, I didn’t spring the extra cash) can’t quite erase the memory of hundreds of millions of dollars already put in service of a red-and-blue daredevil flinging his way across the skies. Besides, another one is already waiting on posters in the lobby: “The Man of Steel, coming 2013.”

The term ‘reboot’ is right. As audiences, we are treated like impatient children, flicking the on/off switch on the back of a computer monitor when gratification is a second late. As long as we validate such second-hand material with our box-office dollars, that’s all we should expect in return.
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